Category Archives: The Pursuit of Happiness

Being Yourself vs. Being Original

“It is unhealthy, and extremely modern, to worry over one’s originality. The Elizabethan poets used to rewrite each other’s poems to try to improve on them. That was a far superior attitude.”—Aaron Haspel

westworld3-700x525If a time machine like the one described in David Fiore’s Hypocritic Days (2014) was discovered tomorrow, and I was asked to write a travel brochure for the 21st-century West next week, I’d be sure to mention individualism as one of our era’s big attractions. The freedom to be yourself, do your own thing, choose your own profession, move to a new place, break with tradition, make a new family, be a little weird, have a little privacy: we take these things for granted far too often. Many of our ancestors would kill for what we have. Many of mine died for it.

Many of yours too.

Still, individualism is a human thing, and, like all human things, it’s flawed. And it comes with a cost. Sometimes a hefty cost. So don’t get me wrong: I know full well how much trouble the emancipation of the individual has caused. But I would nevertheless argue that the freedom to be yourself is one of our culture’s greatest accomplishments. It’s well worth fighting for, despite its drawbacks.

At some point, however, in the not-so-distant past, we seem to have collectively forgotten what it is that we were fighting for all along, what it really means to be authentic, what it really means to be yourself—and I think I know why: we’ve confused being yourself with being original.

Recognizing your own ordinariness can be hard when you’ve been raised to believe that originality is a cardinal virtue. But it’s a bitter pill that most of us have to swallow. Because we can’t all be original. Just as there’s a limited amount of beachfront property in the world, there’s a limited number of people who can be first, unique, singular, and truly original (sui generis). To some extent this is a function of the limited number of geniuses in the world. But it’s mostly a function of dumb luck: some people just happen to be the first one to think or do something new. After all, someone has to be first.

If, like Sam in Garden State (2004), you think that to be an individual, to be yourself, you’ve got to “do something that has never, ever been done before . . . throughout human existence,” you’re bound to go through life profoundly disappointed with yourself. Because this is an unrealistic goal, a silly ideal. You’re setting yourself up for failure. It’s time to return to the sensible authenticity proposed by the Roman Stoic Epictetus. In The Art of Living, he maintains that “one of the best ways to elevate your character immediately is to find worthy role models to emulate. . . . Invoke the characteristics of the people you admire most and adopt their manners, speech, and behavior as your own. There is nothing false in this. We all carry the seeds of greatness within us, but we need an image as a point of focus in order that they may sprout.”

Schopenhauer makes a similar point in “On Thinking for Yourself” (1851), wherein he stresses that being the first one to think a particular thought isn’t what’s important; what’s important is that you make a thought your own. What’s important is that this newly discovered idea enter “into the whole system of your thought” as “an integral part, a living member”; “that it stand in complete and firm relation with what you already know; that it is understood with all that underlies it and follows from it; that it wears the color, the precise shade, the distinguishing mark, of your own way of thinking . . . . This is the perfect application of Goethe’s advice to earn our inheritance for ourselves so that we may really possess it: ‘What you have inherited from your fathers, earn over again for yourselves or it will not be yours.’”

It occurs to me now, and only in retrospect, that this is probably the original purpose of that annoying high school injunction: don’t just copy it out, rephrase it in your own words. I always found that exercise tedious and pointless. Drove me nuts. Seemed like a complete and utter waste of time. After all, if Aristotle said it so well, why can’t I just quote him? I remember asking a few of my teachers questions of this stamp. Not once did I receive a good answer. And I strongly suspect that this is due to the fact that they didn’t have one to give.

But I do. Now. Finally. At 42.

Rephrasing one of, say, Nietzsche’s aphorisms, in your own words, using examples derived from your own lived experience, is in fact a worthwhile exercise. I see that now, at long last. Because to do it, and do it well, you have to truly grasp the idea Nietzsche’s referring to; and if you can truly grasp the idea, it’s yours just as much as it’s Nietzsche’s. This isn’t plagiarism; it’s pedagogy. The ideas I present to my students semester after semester are no more “mine” than the air we breathe in the classroom or the water we drink in the hall. They’re a part of a vast spiritual commons, part of the shared intellectual property of the most fascinating animal ever to walk on God’s Green Earth.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2017)

A Meditation on THE MEDITATIONS

From the vantage of the 21st century, Marcus Aurelius is one of the most appealing characters of Roman antiquity.  Not only a Roman emperor, but a good one, who administered the affairs of state in the public interest and didn’t abuse his authority, but also a thoughtful man, a philosopher, whose private commonplace book, “To Myself”, remains in print today as Meditations, a classic work of Stoic philosophy. Meditations is a true classic, re-discovered periodically by those seeking wisdom in difficult times. It was beloved of figures as diverse as Matthew Arnold (who wrote “So spake the imperial sage, purest of men, Marcus Aurelius”), WEB DuBois, and Bill Clinton. To me, it’s a remarkable book, one that inspires and repels: and not serially, but simultaneously. The passages that seem most noble are, at the same time, the most inhuman.

For Marcus, the good life for human beings is one of dispassion. Perhaps the most widely quoted line from the Meditations is “The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing”; this sounds appealing to modern ears. Marcus sounds as if he is suggesting that life is about challenging and facing down difficulties, rather than simply seizing fleeting pleasures, and no doubt Marcus would agree; but that’s not what he’s trying to say in this passage, which is truncated. In the original text, he continues that living well is like wrestling “inasmuch as it, too, demands a firm and watchful stance against any unexpected onset.” That is, the danger that life poses us is disruption of our mental equilibrium. Certainly pain can do this, and vice, but so too can pleasure and virtue. “Do not indulge in dreams of having what you have not,” he writes, “but reckon up the chief of the blessings you do possess, and then thankfully remember how you would crave for them if they were not yours. At the same time, however, beware lest delight in them leads you to cherish them so dearly that their loss would destroy your peace of mind.”

This insistence that pleasure and virtues are, in their own way, traps, distinguishes Marcus and the Stoics from other ancient schools of philosophy, like the Peripatetics or the Epicureans. The strongest argument Marcus has against those bodies of thought is that they admit that the good life requires certain external goods and circumstances. For Aristotle, the good life was lived in the city-state, and absent that form of social organization, human life can’t reach its full potential. Epicurus believed something similar, that the pleasant life required a well-governed society that minimized harms, for such was a prerequisite of the pleasant life. Marcus, living in a time when Rome warred against Persians and Germans, insists that the good life has no external needs: the power to live well lies within in everyone. “It is perfectly possible to be godlike, even though unrecognized as such. Always keep that in mind; and also remember that the needs of a happy life are very few. Mastery of dialectics and physics may have eluded you, but that is no reason to despair of achieving freedom, self-respect, unselfishness, and obedience to the will of God.” Such a life will be filled with pains and difficulties, but these are to be accepted, even welcomed. He writes: “So here is a rule to remember in future, when anything tempts you to be bitter: not, ‘This is a misfortune’, but ‘To bear this worthily is good fortune'”. In a similar vein, life will seduce with pleasures, but these too are snares. He reminds himself that “Where life is possible at all, a right life is possible; life in a palace is possible; therefore even in a palace a right life is possible.”

A human’s greatest fear, Marcus posits, is the fear of death.  Again and again in the Meditations he offers advice for overcoming this fear, which is to keep one’s death in proper perspective. Anticipating Milton, he emphasizes that such fear is a  product of the mind, and can be changed by the mind. “Everything is but what your opinion makes it; and that opinion lies with yourself. Renounce it when you will, and at once you have rounded the foreland and all is calm; a tranquil sea, a tideless haven.” He suggests imagining one’s own funeral, and recognizing how, even among your friends, there will be people relieved to be free of you and the obligations you bring, which should make the fear of leaving them less. In fact, death is to be imagined at every opportunity: “Take it that you have died today, and your life’s story is ended; and henceforth regard what further time you may be given to you as an uncovenanted surplus, and live it out in harmony with Nature.”

There is wisdom here. Even more than Marcus, we 21st-century Canadians are prone to look for happiness as a thing out there, to be acquired through our latest acquisitions, and modern Stoics like Mr. Money Mustache or Juliet Schor remind us that this temptation will always be with us, and hard as it is to overcome it, doing so is imperative for anyone seeking a pleasant life. Marcus’ advice to cultivate patience and perspective about the difficulties and pains of life is also well taken; we’ve all known people who lacked such perspective, and seen how much unnecessary suffering they underwent. Marcus’ description of such a person, in the second person, is apt: to be such a person is to be a “stranger in your own homeland, bewildered by each day’s happenings as though by wonders unlooked for, and ever hanging upon this one or the next.”

But at the same time, Marcus’ insistence that we must detach from joy is too much to ask. The soldier may take pride in fulfilling duty; but there is more to life than duty. A human being is more than a robot, and finding delight in books, in family or friends, in food and stories and sex, seems to me to be also part of the good life. For all of his iron austerity, it seems to me that Marcus felt it too. The most poignant passage in the Mediations is this one, where Marcus seems to shudder at his own limits, and that of his way of life: “O soul of mine, will you never be good and sincere, all one, all open, visible to the beholder more clearly than even your encompassing body of flesh? Will you never taste the sweetness of a loving and affectionate heart? Will you never be filled full and unwanting; craving nothing yearning for no creature or thing to minister to your pleasures, no prolongation of days to enjoy them, no place or country or pleasant clime or sweet human company? When will you be content with your present state, happy in all about you, persuaded that all things are yours, that all comes from the gods, and that all is and shall be well with you, so long as it is their good pleasure and ordained by them for the safety and welfare of that perfect living whole – so good, so just, so beautiful – which gives life to all things, upholding and enfolding them, and at their dissolution gathering them into itself so that yet others of their kind may spring forth? Will you never be fit for such fellowship with gods and men as to have no syllable of complaint against them, and no syllable of reproach from them?”

I admire Marcus; but I do not follow him.

—Andrew Miller

Optimism and Cynicism

“Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now”
—Bob Dylan, “My Back Pages”

IMG_2532-001When children are born, they have few skills, little ability to protect themselves, but as anyone can see, a wild-eyed curiosity and openness to wonder and beauty, with an unconscious but solid expectation that their parents and community will keep them safe. They are unbridled optimists, drinking deeply of openness and exploration, who have, of necessity, outsourced any cynicism to their parents and community.

IMG_2533-001Usually we bear the burden of such cynicism and protection willingly, and call it love. This gift of being allowed unselfconscious engagement with the world lets the sense of openness, adventure, wonder, trust, and yes, love grow strong enough that it may survive the coming challenges. Our achievement is a kind of mystical golden orb living somewhere inside the child.

To miss this stage is to risk a life without “juice,” vibrancy, joy, or passion. Sometimes those so deprived accept this as their lot, and other times the need is so strong they attempt to recreate this Garden of Eden as adolescents or adults, when the stakes are considerably higher, and the protections much less.

liz-mcThere comes an age when being enveloped in such protection is no longer helpful. We must leave (or be kicked out of) our garden. We back off from protecting our young. We allow, or cannot prevent, the skinned knee, the failed exam, the betrayal, the broken heart, the loss of a home, or even the death of treasured souls. We try to judge the ability of our children to handle these challenges. We play the role of Titan, of the hero, when we fear the risk is too great, but more importantly, we allow them to face their own fights, feel the spark of their own divinity, and become the heroes of their own stories when they can.

Adolescents (extending through young adulthood) must take and accept from their parents and community the burden of cynicism, the duty to sustain and protect, if they are to become adults. Those who have never moved past the unconscious expectation that others will protect and serve them are pathological optimists. The term may seem odd, because of the positive associations, but if they reject further development, they are immature, reckless, entitled, and self-centered. To them, life is about, “What can you do for me?” (Tell you to “Grow the —- up!” you might hear from the voice in your head.)

The achievements required to become an adult are significant – physical, intellectual, and social skills, knowledge of one’s culture and the world, and an ego capable of self-regulation, culminating in the ability protect and sustain oneself as a peer among adults. These skills, this ego, and this self can be so impressive, that one may not notice the mistake of believing this is the pinnacle of development.

aw-Alan-20Cumming_20120118111628316010-420x0The pathological cynic (who ultimately seems somewhat adolescent) takes pride in his or her defensive and sustaining skills – physical, intellectual, or social. He or she can point out limitless examples of dangers or risks, and dazzle you with his or her prowess in attack, defense, or sustenance – and yes, the world is filled with dangers, and such skills can be really quite useful, but they are also a dead end because the world moves forward only through optimism, through openness, wonder, and trust.

It is through finding a passion, something greater than oneself, often through love, or even more powerfully through becoming a parent, that one begins to remember the mystical golden orb inside. One gains the courage to let it back out, but with full awareness that the beauty and fragility of life coexist, maybe as different names for the same thing. One dares to treasure a fading flower, to try to make a dream real, to love a fallible and fickle human, to bring a fragile child into this dangerous but beautiful world, to hold a smile on one’s face and tears in one’s eyes without demanding that either prevail. To be a full adult is not to be a better version of a worldly young adult, capable of more impressive cynicism, but to contain both the child and the young adult, to contain both optimism and cynicism, wariness and hope.

—Aaron Elliott

Is Therapy Destroying Your Life?

Just as those who pay for sex soon suck at sex, those who pay someone to listen soon suck at listening.

books020410_03-003Although we spend billions on it, talk therapy seems to help, at best, one in four. Numerous studies have demonstrated this: it simply does not work for most people. What’s odd, to my mind, is that nobody who knows what they’re talking about seems to dispute this, not even the profession’s most vocal apologists. And yet for some strange reason, our collective faith in the promise of therapeutic salvation remains strong—stronger now, perhaps, than ever before. Despite this abysmal track record, most of us reflexively advise our friends and relatives to “get some help” when they’re going through a tough time. Most of us believe—in a lazy, unthinking way—that seeing a therapist whenever life hurts is, well, you know, just what normal people do. Those who fail to seek professional help when they’re “in a bad place” are viewed with suspicion. At best, we think them eccentric, quirky, and odd, like that weird old friend who still doesn’t have a driver’s license at 42, or that funny middle-aged aunt who lives alone, makes her own hummus, and refuses to use underarm deodorant. At worst, we begin to resent their refusal: “I can’t believe she still hasn’t seen someone! I mean, seriously, at this point, I’m starting to think she wants to be miserable.” “Ya, I know what you mean, my brother’s the same way. It’s like he just doesn’t wanna be happy.”

z024p-001Peer pressure to “get help” can be surprisingly strong on Planet Oprah. We’ve probably all found ourselves in its orbit at some point or another; but none have felt the terrible tug of its gravitational force more than the parents of bratty kids and troubled teens. Most give in to the zeitgeist’s demands regardless of whether or not they think it’s going to help. And they are richly rewarded for their conformity: they and their wayward children shall be washed in therapeutic grace. Schoolyard sins shall be forgiven. These parents—who get their little monsters “the help they need”—are deemed decent, upstanding, responsible, virtuous, and good. But those who stubbornly refuse to seek professional help for their problematic offspring are subjected to a tsunami wave of righteous indignation.

THAT BOY NEEDS THERAPYIf Dante was reincarnated today as a mommy-shaming helicopter parent, my guess is that he’d reserve a particularly nasty place in his new and improved Inferno for suburban heretics who refuse to find therapists for their difficult kids. These parental outlaws will share a spot on Hell Crescent with crackheads who gave their kids beer for breakfast, working parents who slipped peanut butter sandwiches into school lunches, and that coked-up celebrity who sped down the highway in a red convertible with an unsecured baby on his lap. Of course all of this social pressure to “get help” is predicated on the assumption that therapy works—that it can fix you, fix your kid, fix your marriage—however, as I mentioned from the outset, numerous studies have demonstrated that therapy simply does not work for most people. Some find healing, no doubt about that; but most of those who show up broken, leave broken. That being said, my concern, here, isn’t, first and foremost, with whether or not therapy works; it’s with therapy’s side-effects. I suspect that many of those who find healing in the therapist’s office trade in old problems for new ones. What’s worse, I suspect that many who show up broken, leave more broken. There are three reasons for this: (1) talk therapy often erodes social skills; (2) most talk therapy is based upon a discredited model of the mind; and (3) talk therapy often undermines friendship.

(1) How Talk Therapy Erodes Social Skills

Although some learn how to communicate more effectively in therapy, most do not. All to the contrary, talk therapy usually reinforces many of the same inept ways of relating, such as a monological manner, which contributed to the individual’s social isolation in the first place. Good conversation is based on give-and-take, dialogue, empathy, reciprocity, and giving a shit about how the other person feels. When you’re talking with a friend, even an extremely close friend, you’re always trying, to some extent, to engage them, to be funny and entertaining. But when you’re talking with your therapist, it’s all about you—and that’s, well, not that good for you.

(2) Talk Therapy is Based on a Discredited Model of the Mind

We live in a therapeutic culture that’s been extolling the virtues of venting for the better part of a century. As such, we’ve all heard a great deal about the need to express our anger and talk, at length, about things that have made us angry in the past. All of this is based upon a hydraulic model of the mind that was popularized during the Industrial Revolution, a model that still relies heavily—perhaps unsurprisingly—upon steam-engine metaphors (e.g., pressure build-up, the importance of pressure-release valves, etc.). But since we’re dealing here with the received wisdom of our age, this underlying rationale is rarely made manifest, nor is it subjected to serious scrutiny. Most of us simply assume that venting is good for us. What’s more, we assume that its benefits have been proven (somewhere) and backed-up by solid research. In fact, the rationale for venting is based upon a hydraulic model of the mind which researchers disproved and discarded decades ago. As Susan Cain puts it, in Quiet (2012): “The ‘catharsis hypothesis’—that aggression builds up inside us until it’s healthily released—dates back to the Greeks, was revived by Freud, and gained steam during the ‘let it all hang out’ 1960s of punching bags and primal screams. But the catharsis hypothesis is a myth—a plausible one, an elegant one, but a myth nonetheless. Scores of studies have shown that venting doesn’t soothe anger; it fuels it.” What does all of this mean? Well, it means that talking about your problems can often make them worse. This is probably what Aaron Haspel had in mind when he wrote: “If you want to kill your marriage, talk about it.”

(3) Talk Therapy Undermines Friendship

We all like going out for dinner from time to time, and this usually involves paying a stranger to cook for us. Still, most of our meals are home-cooked by family members or friends. But imagine, for a moment, how strange it would be if we all ate out at restaurants so much that we forgot how to cook for each other. What’s more, imagine if we came to believe that it was actually dangerous and unhealthy for “non-professionals” to cook for themselves and others. That, to my mind, is where we are right now vis-à-vis therapy in our culture. Many of us seem to have come to the conclusion that the normal thing to do—Plan A, as it were—is to go to a therapist whenever something’s wrong. And that’s the problem. That’s what’s stunting the growth of our personal relationships and rendering so many of our friendships shallow and superficial.

In The Commercialization of Intimate Life (2003), sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild maintains that an over-reliance upon therapy is one of liberal feminism’s greatest weaknesses: “While books like Women Who Love Too Much focus on therapy, ironically the actual process of healing is subtracted from the image of normal family or communal bonds. The women in Norwood’s tales seem to live in a wider community strikingly barren of emotional support. Actual healing is reserved for a separate zone of paid professionals where people have PhDs, MDs, MAs, accept money, and have special therapeutic identities. While psychotherapy is surely a help to many, it is no substitute for life itself. In the picture Norwood paints, there is little power of healing outside of therapy. In the stories Norwood tells, love doesn’t heal. When you give it, it doesn’t take. When another offers it, it may feel good but it’s not good for you. . . . If the word ‘therapy’ conveys the desire to help another to get to the root of a problem, this is a very deep subtraction from our idea of love and friendship. It thins and lightens our idea of love. We are invited to confine our trust to the thinner, once-a-week, ‘processed’ concern of the professional. This may add to our expectations of therapy, but it lightens our expectations of lovers, family, and friends.”

Though some of our deepest and most meaningful connections to others grow out of joy, most are forged in adversity: e.g., she was there for me when I was going through that terrible break-up; she was there, as well, when my mother was dying of cancer; he was there for me when I got fired; he was there, as well, when I was recovering from that horrible car accident. Every time you pay someone to hang out with you during a rough patch, you rob yourself of an opportunity to get closer to a friend or relative.

I once took a powerful course of antibiotics that wreaked havoc on my digestive system for months. Do I regret taking the antibiotics? Of course not. But I wish I had been better informed about how much damage “the cure” would do. Likewise, it’s time to have an honest conversation about the sociological side-effects of talk therapy. We need to start viewing talk therapy the way we’ve come to view antibiotics. Only a fool would say that antibiotics are useless. Likewise, only a fool would say that talk therapy is useless. But we now know that antibiotics have been vastly over-prescribed, and that this overuse has done real damage. What’s more, we now know that even when the use of antibiotics is warranted, there are harmful side-effects associated with their use which need to be acknowledged and addressed. The same is no doubt true of talk therapy.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2017)

Why I’m Voting NDP

“Thomas Mulcair is a smart man. When Stephen Harper decided to descend into the gutter by playing the niqab card (and when Gilles Duceppe decided to make himself into Harper’s objective ally by joining in), Mulcair had to know that taking a stand on principle would not be an electoral winner. He had to know that given the state of near-hysteria over the issue in his electoral stronghold in Quebec, he may be giving away the election by reminding us that Charter protections should be defended most strenuously when they apply to rights-protected acts that the majority dislikes. But stand on principle is what he has done (and let’s hope he continues to do so till the end). Whoever has ever accused him of being a political opportunist should now think long and hard about that accusation. True leadership is not about pandering. It is not about appealing to prejudices and bigotry. It is not about telling the majority that it is okay to hate. It is about holding us as a society to our higher values. Mulcair is a leader. He had the most to lose in this completely manufactured debate. It is good to know that there is at least one leader among the big parties who is not willing to go to any lengths to curry favour with voters.”
—Daniel Weinstock

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I want a Prime Minister who takes their job seriously. It seems like Thomas Mulcair takes his job seriously as leader of the opposition, so I am willing to give him a chance as leader of this country. I am mostly in line with the NDP party platform so I can get behind the party that he happens to be the leader of. Mulcair is a beast in question period. That’s what I like best about him. He asks straight questions and calls out people when they circle into double speak. He’s not sexy or appealing or charming or particularly personable. But I don’t need politicians to be those things, I have friends for that. Anyway, charismatic leaders are usually sociopaths.

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“He’s not sexy or appealing or charming or particularly personable. But I don’t need politicians to be those things, I have friends for that.”—Helen Simard

Thomas Mulcair is better than the Kitten Eater we have in power right now. I don’t like Elizabeth May and her judgmental views on abortion and her weird 1970s-style comments on essential femininity. Justin Trudeau and Gilles Duceppe are the leaders of parties that do not offer platforms I can get behind. I am also not voting for Mulcair, but for the NDP candidate in my riding who has represented our riding well for the past 4 years. And I am lucky to live in a place where most people vote NDP so I don’t have to worry about strategic voting.

I like Mulcair because to me he’s the best of the shit options we are being offered, a real lesser of evils. And that may seem cynical, but when evil is nice enough to give me a choice, I will always choose the lesser of evils.

—Helen Simard

Walking, Thinking, and Attention

Saw a posting (via Brain Pickings) about Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2000) a few weeks back, and just got around to buying the e-book. Walking, as a basic, mundane, yet profound way of being in the world, is its theme.

For me, walking has been essential to knowing and remembering, to processing and understanding both the world of things and the abstractions of thinking. Some of my earliest memories involve it: I remember the side street of our block on Ismaningerstraße in central Munich, Wehrlestraße, walking with my older brother holding my hand; I was less than 2, maybe even younger; we moved out to the inner suburb Solln very shortly thereafter. We left Germany when I was four and a half. But when we went back to visit when I was 19, I was surprised at how accurate my memories of the places I’d walked were; sharper than the vague ones of our apartment and then our house in Solln. The buildings, the church whose tower we could see from our building’s back courtyard, everything on Wehrlestraße. In Solln there was a patch of woods (which is still there, as are the farmers’ fields nearby) at the end of our street with a path that led to a commercial strip on the main road (Wolfratshauserstraße) where my grandmother would take me to the local Konditerei for pastries and gummi-baerlien. Again, my 19-year-old self, retracing my 3-year-old self’s steps, found it just as I’d remembered it.

I’ve written before of how whenever I’m in a new place and want to really know it, I walk. Driving through a place is like skimming the Cliff Notes of “War and Peace”; even a bicycle is still a machine which mediates one’s experience, which takes a piece of one’s attention away from one’s surroundings. Walking is so automatic that it barely registers on one’s awareness, leaving it free to contemplate one’s surroundings; when it does impinge upon it, when we stumble over some obstacle, for instance, that is still a direct engagement with those surroundings. There is no more intimate way of being in the wider world. We’re animals. Moving under our own power is what we do and how we have known the world for far longer than any other means.

It is also why we can feel a loss of mobility, whether our own or another’s, so keenly: Tom, a First Nations guy who’s been one of the two guys who do the garbage, yard work, and snow removal around our building, and who has cheerfully dug out my car every winter (I pay him) with his snowblower, got cancer a few months ago, lost the ability to walk, may have only six more months to live, is bald from chemo, and is getting around in a motorized wheelchair. I saw him yesterday as I was out shopping and told him I was glad to see he could still get out and about, all over the wider neighbourhood; he laughed and said, yeah, it’s nice. But it’s still heartbreaking to see him not walking and riding his bike around, to say nothing of not having long to live.

Like fellow Concordia grad and flâneur Chris Erb, I’m baffled by people who are perfectly able to walk (and whose local environment lacks any major impediments to it – an objection raised in earlier discussions of this piece) but who dislike it, who prefer to minimize it by using their cars or other means. (Chris once described a visit with some Fredericton friends: he wanted to show them some place that was a ways away, and thought nothing of walking there, but as they proceeded and realized that it was going to be more than a couple of blocks, they became anxious and balked.) It makes me wonder whether rigidity of thought goes with a lack of significantly frequent walking – and I don’t just mean the lack of exercise which can also impair blood-flow and thus cognitive function.

Walking as a meditative activity can be in familiar surroundings, where that familiarity facilitates the automaticity of it, so that one’s thoughts can wander abstract pathways; or it can be in novel surroundings which trigger new associative thinking – free wandering parallels free association. In either case, something about the act of moving on our feet seems to set our thoughts in motion in a way that doesn’t happen as much when we’re sedentary. (There’s an image of philosophers as armchair thinkers, but I think a look at the lives of various thinkers throughout the ages would reveal that many of them engaged in perambulatory meditations much of the time.)

Why should moving about on our two feet be so intimately involved in our cognitive engagement with the world? A folk/evolutionary psychology explanation would probably cite the fact that we’ve been walking for several million years, and in a world where paying acute attention while walking was essential to survival. Possibly, but that’s only the bare bones of an hypothesis.

I’m looking forward to reading what Solnit has to say about it and much else.

—Kaï Matthews

Postscript, after a fair amount of Facebook feedback; I reproduce here my most recent comments: 

It’s interesting that the comments on my piece should so quickly turn to the practical impediments to walking in our built environments. While one quite valid response to my piece could be to focus on the potential elitism of extolling the singular virtues (for the able-bodied, to be sure) of walking – “Well, aren’t you just so fortunate to have places to walk! Bit of a luxury, innit?! Ain’t no sidewalks where I live!” – I focused on its relationship to our grasp of the world for a quite practical reason.

If walking did not have such a unique beneficial quality to it, one that is lost when other modes of transport are substituted for it, then there would be far less reason to fight for its existence as an everyday and primary means of locomotion. Zipping around our cities in cars, on public transit, on bikes or scooters, or via Futurama-style pneumatic tubes, for that matter, would do just as well, and that would have obvious consequences for urban planning. Any policy worth implementing should have a sound philosophical and scientific basis; speculating about what makes walking special thus is not some indulgence for lazy elites but rather is relevant to everyone, no matter their circumstances.

I want to argue for the essential, unique, and irreplaceable value of walking, a value I think is rooted in our ancient bipedal nature, in the way that the evolution of our cognition may be intimately bound up in it.

There was a black guy in LA I remember seeing on the news back in the 90s (IIRC) interviewed about his pushback against cops harassing him for his penchant for taking long, long walks around the city. He spoke of how important it was to him, not merely for the sense of being able to exercise his legal but all too poorly respected right to walk wherever he felt like in public spaces, just like any white person, but also because it helped him think. I remember thinking, yeah! I know just what you mean! The news anchors interviewing him seemed not to register that aspect of his well-articulated explanation of his grievance against the LAPD; they could only view him through a lens of “black man complains about not being able to walk outside his ‘hood.” The idea that he could be pondering and philosophizing during his walks, that that might even be his primary reason for his extensive perambulations, seemed not to occur to them.

Post-postscript: There’s an old joke about the difference between New York and LA: in LA they say “Have a nice day!”, but they’re thinking “F@&# you!”; in NY they say “F@&# you!”, but they’re thinking “Have a nice day!” But for me an even more pertinent difference, and why I prefer NY, is that LA is a sprawling, spread-out city of cars (as the old pop tune goes, “Nobody Walks in LA”, which isn’t strictly true – lots of poor black and Chicano folks do – but true enough), whereas NY truly is a pedestrian city, dense and compact enough for it to be feasible, and a place where it’s not unusual for lifelong residents to never get a driver’s licence.

Post-post-postscript: a number of comments I’ve received have affirmed and expanded upon my themes, so I present them here:

There is something inherently healing as well about walking. I don’t run. I walk. And I notice. Walking pulls me away from my thoughts, and brings me closer to them, at the same time. There is an inward-outward movement, like a wave, from my inner world, to noticing and hearing what’s around me.I suppose that’s why I like to visit cities. I can leave the car where it is, and explore, meet people, engage in my surroundings. – Leeça St.-Aubin

My mother was the first to teach me the power of walking, but many have since encouraged me. Nietzsche admonishes us to trust only those thoughts which come to us while walking and Taleb tells us in an excellent essay precisely why he walks. I’ve witnessed the strange mix of panic and exasperation that many suburban North Americans express when you tell them they’re about to walk for more than 20 minutes, and it is indeed bizarre. Just happened two weeks ago actually. “Why don’t we drive?” she blurted out, trying to conceal her anger. I think you’re on to something concerning the relationship between categorical thinking devoid of nuance and excessive driving. Something to that. – John Faithful Hamer

“All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.” From Twilight of the Idols. (Nietzsche) – Rich James

Many years ago I decided that the best way to explore Brooklyn was to walk from Brighton Beach to the Manhattan Bridge. I took the el train to Brighton Beach, had breakfast at some bar/breakfast place and decided to ask the locals for suggestions. A lively conversation about bus versus metro ensued, but when I clarified that I was planning on walking there was unanimity: that is impossible! I did it, but the route I chose was more or less the equivalent of walking Jean Talon from end to end. Not the most exciting walk…. But I did learn a thing or two about Brooklyn during my meandering. I think that I did something like this: From Brighton Beach to Manhattan Bridge via Coney Island Ave. – Zvi Leve

Taking the train to TO tomorrow and will be reading Dan Rubinstein’s Born to Walk: The transformative power of a pedestrian act, along the way! – Marilyn Berzan-Montblanch

Native American chief, Red Cloud, was born to a mother with the name “Walks As She Thinks”… – Jaffer Ali

Over the last 36 years I’ve run around 65,000 miles. Hiked, skied, climbed, and backpacked much more. For me the motivation is not the opportunity for meditation, but rather the opportunity to observe nature with all my senses that gets me out there. Forget pace. Remember beauty. – Tom Bohannon

Totally agree about the walks: it’s a biological necessity that’s treated like a luxury. – Diana Young

Hell yes!! I love walking!! Especially after a big meal, that’s just the best. When I’m traveling in a new city I walk for hours to soak up the atmosphere. I live in China so wherever I walk I turn heads and get the occasional dirty look and muttered assumptions but it’s small price to pay for a good constitutional. I also love running, and biking and just propelling myself in general without any mechanical assistance though so maybe I’m the strange one. – Mike Benner

Every Garden Has Its Serpent

“If a little doesn’t satisfy you, then nothing will satisfy you—not even a lot; if enough isn’t enough, then nothing will be enough.”—Epicurus

yzinoYou’ve all heard the old adage: the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. Whenever someone’s said this to me (or someone I know), I’ve understood it to mean that one should think twice before making big life changes (e.g., changing careers, quitting a job, leaving a spouse, moving to a new city) because the good things over there are never as good as they look from here. Truth be told, I’ve never found this piece of wisdom particularly helpful, perhaps because I’m far too shortsighted (literally and figuratively) to get a good look at the grass over there on the other side of the proverbial fence. But I have benefited greatly from something the philosopher Horst Hutter once told me—something which is, I’ve recently realized, the flip-side of that old saw about superficially superior sod.

It was early 2004, we were at Horst and Francine’s place on Fairmount, drinking dep wine at the kitchen table, and I was in a bad way, bitching and complaining about the shortcomings of the academic life. I was profoundly disillusioned and, as a consequence, wondering aloud about what life might be like if I left academia and did something completely different. Horst listened patiently. And he didn’t disagree with me. All to the contrary, he said that the problems I had identified were real and, alas, inescapable features of the academic landscape. Even so, said he, with that adorably enigmatic smile of his: “Every garden has its serpent.”

Though it took another hour, another bottle, and a great deal of clarification, the full meaning of my sphinx-like mentor’s riddle eventually dawned on me. Here it is: (1) Problems and temptations are everywhere to be found, even in paradise. (2) The problems associated with an attractive new prospect aren’t always apparent when you’re peering over the proverbial fence. (3) Sticking with the serpent you know is often patently prudent. (4) It’s foolish to believe that any life change—no matter how drastic—will lead to a problem-free life. (5) A big change may or may not lead to a better life, but it will never lead to a problem-free life, because such a life is nowhere to be found in the City of Man. (6) Searching for a problem-free paradise may be the single most effective way to guarantee yourself a miserable life. (7) The best thing we can reasonably hope for when we’re contemplating a big change is to trade in one set of problems for another. This doesn’t mean, I hasten to add, that change is futile. Nothing could be further from the truth! It merely means that if you’re unhappy with a major piece of your life (e.g., your relationship, your career, where you live, etc.), the proper question to ask isn’t “Where can I find a serpent-free paradise?” but rather “Where can I find a garden with a serpent I can live with?”

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)

My Self-Righteous Inner Accountant

“at a conference on reciprocity, a senior scientist revealed that he kept track on a computer spreadsheet of what he had done for his wife and what she had done for him . . . . The fact that this was his third wife, and that he’s now married to his fifth, suggests that keeping score is perhaps not for close relationships.”—Frans de Waal, The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society (2010)

who meYour boss has made it very clear: if you’re late for work one more time, you’re getting fired. So when you wake up late because of last night’s power outage, you’re freaking out. Because you need this job. Really need this job. In less than ten minutes, you’re out the door and speeding like a demon on the highway. To make your exit, you’re forced to cut some guy off. He lays on his horn and yells out horrible obscenities at you. You feel bad about cutting him off, really you do, but you forgive yourself soon after you get to work on time. Because you had a really good reason. Because you need this job. Really need this job. Of course, the guy you cut off doesn’t know any of this. And he’s red-in-the-face furious, overflowing with righteous indignation. When he gets to work, he tells everyone he knows about the asshole who nearly killed him on the way to work.

Next week, you’re driving to work on the same highway—on time, this time—when some asshole rockets past you at an ungodly speed. Wow, you think to yourself, what an inconsiderate, selfish jerk! Doesn’t he realize how reckless he’s being? A moment later, another asshole cuts you off to make his exit. This time you’re furious. You lay on your horn and yell out horrible obscenities at him. You’re red-in-the-face furious, overflowing with righteous indignation. When you get to work, you tell everyone you know about the asshole who nearly killed you on the way to work. Of course, the guy who rocketed past you at an ungodly speed doesn’t know any of this. He was in a hurry to get to his daughter’s school. The principal called him at work to tell him that a freak accident had left his daughter bleeding and unconscious on the gymnasium floor. The other guy—who cut you off to make his exit—was trying to get his pregnant wife to the hospital in time. He felt bad about cutting you off, really he did, but he forgave himself a moment or two after his son was born. Because he had a really good reason: his wife was hemorrhaging severely, and without medical assistance, she and his newborn son might have died.

Like you, I have a self-righteous inner accountant in my head who loves to keep score; loves to keep track of how much I’ve done for you, how much you’ve done for me; how much I owe you, how much you owe me. If he graded us solely on what we did and didn’t do, you’d at least have a chance (albeit a slim chance) at a fair trial. We’d have to correct for the natural human tendency to see (and remember) ALL the good stuff we do and only SOME of the good stuff others do. Still, if we stuck to the facts, the process might, on occasion, produce a just result. But my self-righteous inner accountant isn’t nearly this fair! And yours is, in all likelihood, no better than mine. The lawyer in my head is as unscrupulous as Better Call Saul, as ruthless as Eli Gold, and as mendacious as Karl Rove; he’ll say anything to win, anything to get me off, anything to make me look good.

What’s more, he’s been known to cook the books! How? Well, the self-righteous inner accountant in my head grades you only on what you do or don’t do. Alas, not so for me: I, like you, get points for what I do and don’t do. But I also get points for good intentions, for being considerate, for good stuff I think about doing. For instance, let’s say we’re married, and I want you to stop leaving your dirty clothes on the bathroom floor, whilst you want me to stop leaving the toilet seat up. Every time I see myself putting the toilet seat down, I’ll smile a self-satisfied smile, pat myself on the back, and give myself some points for being a considerate spouse. But, since I’m not you, I won’t be there to see you picking up your dirty clothes and putting them in the hamper six days in a row. I will, however, notice the one time you forget to do it. I’ll notice that one time, on the seventh day, that you left your dirty clothes in a nasty little pile on the bathroom floor. And when I’m telling you off later on, I’ll say that the fact that you failed to pick up after yourself just proves what I’ve long suspected: namely, that you’re a selfish, inconsiderate jerk. Of course you’ll indignantly protest: “But, John, I remembered to do it six days in a row, and, besides, you left the toilet seat up last night, and I told you how important that was to me!” To which I’ll indignantly reply: “But I remembered to put the toilet seat down six days in a row!” Things will, at this point, escalate to screaming and shouting and nowhere nice.

Is there a way out of this familiar story of domestic warfare? I believe there is. All of the truly great wisdom traditions of the world provide us with ways to emancipate ourselves from pointless cycles of resentment and bitterness such as this. From the Roman Stoics—especially Epictetus—we can learn the fine art of forbearance: how to assume the best in those who piss us off, how to be as kind (and forgiving and compassionate) to others as we so often are to ourselves. For instance, if you were driving to work with Epictetus, and some guy cut you off to make his exit, the philosopher would tell you to assume that the guy had a good reason for doing what he did. Maybe his wife’s in labor in the backseat. Maybe he just got a horrible call from his daughter’s school. Maybe he’s gonna get fired if he’s late for work. Does this make cutting someone off in traffic okay? Of course not! But assuming the guy had a good reason takes the sting out of it by shutting up your self-righteous inner accountant. The religious traditions of the world are—at their best—equally good at freeing you from the prison of your own resentment and bitterness. For instance, The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) has Christians the world over reciting these salubrious words on a daily basis: “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us.” What’s more, the passage is followed up with an explicit warning: “if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:15). The strategies to be found are diverse, but they all come down to the same thing: you’ve gotta find a way to keep your self-righteous inner accountant in check. Because he’s full of shit. Really he is.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Goldfish (2nd edition)

The Wisdom of Jubilee, Forgiveness, and Forgetting

“And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee unto you;”—Leviticus 25:10 (King James Version)

3090__the_war_of_the_roses_1989movie_The longer you’ve been with someone, the more times you’ve let them down, hurt them, said stupid shit, and, in a way, incurred debts to them. Perhaps that’s why people who’ve been together for a long time can fight so spectacularly: because they’re not just fighting about what happened yesterday, or last week; they’re fighting about what happened last year, or last decade. Indeed, I’ve heard some couples bring up shit that happened in the 1990s in fights! As you might expect, this makes their fights far more intense than they ought to be. When this dynamic is ramped up to the group level, you’ve got people screaming and yelling about stuff that happened 400 years ago as if it happened yesterday; you’ve got programs of ethnic cleansing predicated on wrongs that were supposedly perpetrated by the ancestors of your victims; and you’ve got young adults in developing countries crushed by national debts that were incurred by corrupt politicians decades before they were born. Alas, I propose that we forgive it all!

eternal-sunshine-of-the-spotless-mindWhat could be more beautiful than a periodic forgetting of debts? It could renew our relationships, our economy, our international relations? How often do we see people split up and remarry simply because the weight of resentment on their shoulders proves too heavy to bear? They start off fresh with a new partner (also recently divorced) and proceed—slowly but surely—to build up a similarly substantial weight of resentment, which, in time, will necessitate another divorce, and another remarriage. But why not break this cycle? Why not forgive the debts, get over it, stop bringing up old shit, and move on?

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)

p.s. I’m not, I hasten to add, suggesting that we ignore the claims of justice. Central to the biblical notion of jubilee is, in fact, justice: because debts become too heavy to bear at a certain point, and rates of inequality become untenable. That’s what jubilee is all about! It’s not about people who got rich via slavery saying to their newly emancipated slaves: look, can we just let bygones be bygones. It’s about emancipated slaves and their onetime masters dividing up the resources equitably and then agreeing to let bygones be bygones.

Guy de Maupassant – the Complete Short Stories

Tl;dr: If you’ve never read Guy de Maupassant, definitely read “Boule de Suif‘, his first and most famous story. If you enjoyed that, I can recommend a few more. Maupassant is worth reading because of his clarity and brevity. He doesn’t flinch from displaying the dark side of human life, but that view into the dark side means that when he turns to satire, it’s delicious.

Occasionally I take on a reading project where I read as much of one author’s work as I can handle. One of these began when I picked up a cheap copy of a selection of Maupassant’s short stories, which I had barely begun when I foolishly left it on a bus. Looking for a replacement, I went to Project Gutenberg, where I was able to download the complete corpus of his short stories – thirteen volumes! – in one file. Here was something worth digging my teeth into.

What the typical reader knows of Maupassant is probably something like this: French writer, late nineteenth century, followed in the footsteps of Voltaire by exposing bourgeois morality as a sham, died insane from syphilis. To this I don’t have anything to add: I don’t know his biography, just his bibliography. So what did I learn from reading all these stories?

Firstly, they’re worth reading. Maupassant is everything I adore in short fiction: his stories have beginnings, middles, and endings, with sharply defined characters, and always have a point. Though not a moralist – he doesn’t seem to be keen for us to begin acting a different way – he does want us to feel something about his characters, and usually succeeds. Continue reading Guy de Maupassant – the Complete Short Stories